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Jan 28, 2009

Academy products hold the key to success

There is a certain school of thought, probably led by those now walking the halls of Manchester City, that says you have to buy your way to success. However, a quick look around the most successful teams in Europe reveals that a large selection of the continent's best players have risen through their clubs' youth academies.

As the transfer window draws to a close, City's pursuit of Kaka and more of the world's top talent has dominated the headlines, but there is cause for concern when you consider the impact that such moves have on young players already at the club.

Would the capture of Kaka have cast a shadow over the blossoming talent of Stephen Ireland and Michael Johnson? Would David Villa have taken Daniel Sturridge's place? Almost certainly yes, but if the likes of City (who, having won the 2008 FA Youth Cup, boast one of the most impressive academies in Europe) focus their attention on the development of their young stars they could be left reaping the rewards for years to come.

It has been said ''you win nothing with kids'' and, thus far, Arsene Wenger's philosophy at Arsenal appears to have given weight to this opinion - having failed to win anything for the past three years. However, Europe's elite clubs have all been built on foundations that have come from within and the evidence is there for all to see.

The Gunners' platform for their early successes under Wenger, were themselves forged from developing the likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and Martin Keown. Manchester United have enjoyed unprecedented success with a side that once had David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Mark Hughes and still boasts stalwarts Ryan Giggs, Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.

While Arsenal have struggled to replace their departed heroes, their academy is thriving and it is no mistake that Ferguson has kept his academy players together either. The club may suffer from their manager's retirement in near future, but their future on the pitch looks bright in the form of Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson.

At the other end of the scale, Chelsea have enjoyed a period of success based on Roman Abramovich's investment, but their heartbeat is still John Terry, who was brought through the club's system from age 14. While the criticism fired at them (and particularly Frank Arnesen) in recent times comes from a lack of squad depth based around their failure to improve on their development of youth.

Liverpool, too, have sought to buy young foreign players in their ever-growing academy. But it raises the question of how much the club could have achieved if they had been able to unearth another Jamie Carragher or Steven Gerrard.

One of the most successful clubs in history, Real Madrid, have pursued a 'galactico' policy in the past, bringing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo to the club for exorbitant sums, but arguably their two best players in recent times have been Raul and Iker Casillas - both products of Madrid's youth setup.

Barcelona have also paid over the odds on Daniel Alves and Alex Hleb recently, but their core consists of defender Carlos Puyol and playmaker Xavi, who began their careers at the club. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes and Andreas Iniesta also boast the distinction of having come through the ranks, while the club picked up Lionel Messi in 2000 from their scouting network in Argentina and developed him into one of the world's best.

Their successful academy can also claim responsibility for finding Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, Giovani Dos Santos and current Nou Camp starlets Bojan Krkic and Sergio Busquets, hinting that their focus on youth has the potential to deliver in the future as well.

In Italy, AC Milan built their side around the defensive solidity of stalwarts Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini in the 90s. Maldini is without a doubt one of the best defenders of his generation and, at 40, is still a vital part of the current Rossoneri side, but the club have struggled to bring through players of the same quality and they have won the Serie A only once in the last ten years.

Marco Borriello is the only other youth product to have made a significant impact on the current Milan line-up and, in letting the likes of striker Alberto Paloschi leave in favour of signing Ronaldinho, Milan may miss out on the next Maldini (although they do have his 12-year-old son Christian signed up already).

Likewise, AS Roma, who brought Francesco Totti through the youth squad in 1989; but, other than Alberto Aquilani, have not made great strides in replacing the Italian legend and count the cost of a number of expensive failures (€28m on Antonio Cassano the worst) in their recent history.

Elsewhere in Europe, clubs have found success in developing their young players. Karim Benzema at Lyon, Joao Moutinho at Sporting Lisbon and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm at Bayern Munich will all go on to have great careers, but the concern is that clubs will use their youth products merely as a means to make money and not consider their long-term futures.

Ajax, who boast arguably the best academy setup in the world, lost their best player Klass Jan Huntelaar to Real Madrid in January for €20m, while the list of players to have developed at the Amsterdam ArenA, but are no longer there, reads like a 'Who's Who' of international class.

Edwin van der Sar, Clarence Seedorf, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert are just some of the top stars to have passed through the Dutch club's academy; while more recently they lost the potential of Nigel de Jong, Hedwiges Maduro, Johnny Heitinga and Ryan Babel to more lucrative offers.

The club are still developing talent like Maarten Stekelenburg, Urby Emanuelson, Gregory van der Wiel and Siem de Jong but, unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before they leave for pastures new.

Ultimately, the swelling coffers of European football will continue to see players traded for huge amounts of money and many clubs will enjoy success by bringing in top talent for top dollar. It is simply the way football is going.

However, when you consider a team of: Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol, Jamie Carragher, John Terry, Paolo Maldini, David Silva, Xavi, Paul Scholes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Raul and Francesco Totti (with subs of Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Andreas Iniesta, Phillip Lahm, Guti and Victor Valdes) could have been created without spending a penny on transfer fees, it might be worth remembering that great players do not always come with a great price tag.

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